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Honore de Balzac wrote, "A mother who is really a mother is never
free." It is true that the maternal bond may be one of the
strongest forces in the universe. A mother's heart is always with
her child, even when --- or perhaps especially when --- that child
is far away. And a grown child is no exception. So what happens in
a mother's heart and mind when she learns that her child is far
away and in danger? What if the danger is self-inflicted?

These questions take center stage in Mary Gordon's latest novel,
PEARL. Single mother Maria Meyers is celebrating a quiet Christmas
in New York when she finds out that her twenty-year-old daughter
Pearl, who is attending school in Ireland, has chained herself to
the American Embassy in Dublin and has not eaten for six weeks.
Pearl has written a statement saying that her death by starvation
is meant to mark the death of a young man who recently has been
killed. Even more than that, Pearl's actions are meant to witness
the "will to harm" she finds in humanity.

Maria is unaware of Pearl's connection to the boy and is confused
and saddened to learn that Pearl feels in some way responsible for
his death. She feels helpless and alone knowing that her daughter
is so far away and in so much pain. On the flight to Dublin, Maria
tries to remain calm but is struggling to keep her feelings in
check as she rushes to rescue Pearl. Also making the painful
journey to help Pearl is Joseph Kasperman, who Maria grew up with
and who Pearl has trusted and loved all her life. As the two travel
to Dublin, readers learn all about their complicated relationship,
Pearl's childhood, and the events that drove her to desperate

Gordon's prose is amazing; heartfelt and honest but not sappy, and
emotional without being overwrought. There are so many themes
present in the book: family relationships, the struggle for
political and civil freedom, individual responsibility, and the
question of human nature. Still, the story is never muddled; Gordon
does a commendable job of keeping the plot crisp, the characters
true and believable, and the reader interested. It is only with
Joseph's thread of the story that the novel drags ever so

Pearl's suicide attempt is about politics but it is mostly about
witnessing --- not just the life and death of one individual who
has died senselessly, but also the lives and deaths of so many who
have, and do, all the time. It is also about Pearl trying to find a
voice and identity in what feels to her like a chaotic and troubled
world. Because she doesn't think that her voice is loud enough or
strong enough to make a difference, she believes that her body will
make a bigger statement.

Her act of sacrifice forces Maria and Joseph to assess their lives
and their relationship to each other and to Pearl as they reach out
to try and save her from a burden they do not understand.

Maria is a fierce character; she's protective of her daughter yet
blind to her daughter's real needs. In her Gordon has created an
interesting, not always likeable but quite understandable,
character. Pearl is very compelling and Gordon writes her story
with sympathy, thoughtfulness and wisdom. Gordon's narrative style
is quite unique --- an omniscient and personal, unnamed narrator
who shares with readers a concern for the characters.

In the end, neither Pearl, who had wanted to be, nor Maria, who had
hoped never to be, are free from each other and their complicated,
realistically portrayed relationship. The final chapter, almost
hidden in the hardback edition, finds them together, trying to heal
and understand each other. Gordon writes, "We will hope for the

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 14, 2011

by Mary Gordon

  • Publication Date: April 11, 2006
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 1400078075
  • ISBN-13: 9781400078073